The acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (known for Maelström and Incendies) gathered some impressive cast for his latest film – Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin. He also recruited a genius cinematographer Roger Deakins to create a beautifully realised, but incredibly bleak, world of USA/Mexico border and the morally ambiguous reality of war against drugs. By all accounts, Sicario is supposed to be one of 2015’s finest. A true feast for eye and soul disguised as a tense thriller. What more could a true cinephile possibly want?
Villeneuve also managed to get this year’s Oscar nominee, the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, to provide a musical score for his, already impressive, project. Sicario, of course, bears absolutely no musical resemblance to acclaimed and heartwarming The Theory of Everything. Instead, it is an interesting and intelligent mix of synthetic music and bleak orchestral accompaniment. While this approach in itself isn’t anything new and can be heard in countless scores coming out these days, it is the execution that really matters. For once, the two worlds, while often heard together, feel like an organic whole. It’s often hard to separate them.
‘Armoured Vehicle’ starts off with an almost inaudible electronic pulse that gradually increases in intensity. The ominous orchestral textures, reminiscent of Howard Shore’s Seven, take center stage. If by this point you feel slightly uncomfortable by this oppressive tone, a change of disc to something a bit easier on your ears might be in order. The score is often based around rather simple motifs and ostinatos, all of which Jóhannsson tends to repeat ad nauseam among ever-thickening textures (‘The Beast’).
Occasionally, Sicario ventures into the territory of pure horror. In both ‘The Border’ and ‘Explosion’ the swarming orchestral chaos becomes more prominent, while ‘Drywall’ employs truly brooding low woodwinds that feel like they belong in Elliot Goldenthal’s Alien 3 or John Corigliano’s Altered States. The terrifying synthesised textures sometimes too abrasive, even for the most tolerant listeners. In ‘Surveillance’, they will really test one’s patience. The distorted mechanical rhythm of ‘Tunnel Music’ takes us really deep into aural abyss.
‘Desert Music’ is our first taste of more emotional underscoring. In a regular score, the earnest and cold cello solo (performed by Hildur Guðnadóttir) would have been treated as a bleak interlude. In Sicario, however, it is a moment of comfort. The gentle repetitive woodwind figures and string accompaniment both feel almost out of place. And yet, they completely belong in the desolate and unforgiving Mexican portrait that both Jóhannsson and Denis Villeneuve are painting in their superb film. ‘Melancholia’ is yet another, this time more lively, track that offers some beauty in the guitar solos. That is about the only subtle ethnic reference to the locale in which story takes place, even if it remains still rather vague.
About halfway through the album, we get our first taste of Sicario’s action music. The brass section is growling at its lowest registers in ‘Convoy’, while propulsive string ostinato is building up. You can hardly call it an energetic and exciting moment but is nevertheless highly effective. ‘The Bank’ continues on with the faster tempo.
Towards the end of this album, Jóhannsson introduces yet another potentially cliched, element – human vocals performed by Robert Aiki and Aubrey Lowe. They are however just distant voices among the score’s unforgiving textures, not a dominating element (‘Soccer Game’). The finale track, ‘Alejandro’s Song’ explores this idea even further. It is distorted, half-synthetic. Very haunting and truly unsettling.
Somewhere between Howard Shore’s Seven, Alexandre Desplat’s Zero Dark Thirty and Elliot Goldenthal’s Alien 3, there is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Sicario. A difficult album to enjoy but certainly an easy one to admire. If you are in a mood for an insanely dark and brooding modern thriller score that avoids typical cliches, you are in for a treat. One of 2015’s best scores that is also incredibly hard to recommend. Make of that what you will.
Sicario is out now from Varese Sarabande